Glimpse of country's surveillance network shows priorities are to suppress complaints and root out 'non-harmonious elements'
The shadow of the state
looms over everyday life
in China. Photograph:
A Chinese police chief has boasted of recruiting one in every 33 local residents as an informant, official media reported today.
The director of an inner Mongolian public security bureau said officers had recruited 12,093 of his county's 400,000 inhabitants to provide intelligence, with the admission offering an unusual glimpse into the state's surveillance network.
Liu Xingchen told the state news agency Xinhua the priorities were to collect information about conflicts that might lead to complaints to higher authorities and to discover "non-harmonious elements".
Experts said it was rare to see information on the numbers of informants or public discussion of the network, although detailed accounts of surveillance work are available in documents intended for internal use.
While China's surveillance network is known to be extensive, it is not clear how active the informants in Kailu County are or how typical the figures are of wider practices.
Liu said all officers had to recruit 20 informants, with those in criminal investigation units finding extra "eyes and ears".
In the interview, translated by the China Digital Times blog, he added that the bureau had sought to "dig deep for intelligence information on many fronts, proactively discover non-harmonious elements that affect stability ... [and try to] evolve from being passive to being active, to go from punishing after the fact to resolving the problem before the fact."
Liu cited officers who found out that villagers planned to protest to higher authorities and "dissuaded" them from doing so.
Although petitioning is a legal and longstanding practice in China, officials are under pressure to keep down the number of complainants from their areas and often resort to methods such as harassment or detention.
Nicholas Bequelin, an Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said police could easily force people to inform, without adding them to the payroll, through measures including threatening their careers.
"Although China's surveillance system is particularly thorough, these [kinds of claims about numbers] seem to be always written from the point of view of security institutions that want to show how professional they are and what incredible resources they have," he added.
Joshua Rosenzweig, of Dui Hua, a group seeking better treatment of detainees in China, said: "I certainly don't expect they are all regularly producing valuable information."
He said police had accelerated the development of intelligence-gathering networks from the mid-90s.
Information sought was likely to range from details of "unreliable elements" – such as people seeking to organise politically – to warnings of potential conflicts such as land seizures, which could erupt into violence or protests.
The official response "can run the gamut from attempts to actually resolve the conflicts, to using threats or inducements, all the way up to actual force and prosecuting ringleaders," he added.
Dr Kam Wong, an expert on Chinese policing at Xavier University in Cincinnati, said upper echelons set out detailed briefs of the information they wanted local forces to submit.
But he said that, despite the development of a "supposedly comprehensive, supposedly all-knowing system", the authorities frequently failed to predict large-scale unrest.